ALE Summer 2002 No. 307

Continental Beer Styles: The Sour Beers Of Flanders

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This article in the series returns to Flanders in Belgium, focusing on traditional sour beers.

There are two main styles of these 'Burgundies of Flanders', which go by various unofficial names: in this article I shall refer to them as Old Brown (Oud Bruin) and the even rarer Old Reds, from East Flanders.

Old Brown (Oud Bruin)

These beers are primarily associated with the waterside city of Oudenaarde. They are brewed from a blend of malts, including the reddish Vienna malt (similar to English crystal malt), with a little roasted barley to add the brown colour. Traditionally they are mashed by simmering overnight rather than for a couple of hours as most other brewers do it, and then boiled in the copper for twelve hours.

Fermentation in open vats for up to six weeks is followed by storage in old oak casks to mature for nine months before bottling, where they will condition further.

The best-known of these brown ales come from the Liefmans brewery (which dates from 1679), particularly the fully-matured version, Gouldenbrand (6%). You can recognise Liefmans beers by their distinctive tissue-wrapped bottles. Unfortunately, since being taken over by the Riva group in the early 1990s, production methods have changed, and the beer is no longer mashed or boiled in Oudenaarde.

There are only a few other decent examples of this rare style: Clarysse Felix Oudenaards Oud Bruin (5.5%) is delightful fruity, sweet and sourish. Don't gulp it, sip it and savour its rich mixture of flavours.

Another excellent Oud Bruin is only found in a small town north of Oudenaarde called Eine. The brewery is called Cnudde, and the beer is only available on draught in the town.

Sour Red or Old Red

Referred to by Michael Jackson (the beer writer, not the pop star!) as Flemish Reds, the colour derives from the use of Vienna malt. Their sourness comes from their being matured for long periods in unlined oak vats, allowing microorganisms in the wood to go to work on the sugars in the young ale. (Some brewers like to take shortcuts and speed up the maturing process by injecting the microorganisms directly into the beer.)

The best-known producer of Sour Red is Rodenbach. Before the brewery was sold, they used to mature the beer in tall oak tuns for between 18 months and two years before bottling, which gave this Grand Cru a delicious sourness with a large range and complexity of woody, sour and fruity flavours.

Rare as they are, it seems to be easier to get a reasonable Flemish Red than a Brown. Duchess De Bourgogne is my personal favourite.

Fruit versions

The urge to add fruit (cherries in particular) to beer seems endemic in Belgium, and these styles haven't escaped. Unfortunately, these krieks are going the same way as their sour cousins, and are very difficult to find now. Rodenbach have ceased production of their Alexander (Grand Cru sweetened with cherry essence), and since Crombé ceased brewing a few years ago it is next to impossible to find their Oud Kriekenbier (the only beer made with 100% whole cherries), which was the best of the lot.

The best known is probably Liefman's Kriek, but it's so syrupy and sugary these days it is hardly worth bothering with. The only other reasonable ones at the moment that I know of is Echte Kriek on draught, or Felix Kriek, but only from the 75cl bottles - it's horribly sweet and sickly in the little bottles, as we found out recently at the beer festival!

Happy drinking!
Lambic Monster

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